Biden’s answer was weak and unrealistic. But it also highlighted what’s really important on this question, and what liberals in particular need to keep in sight: As vital as the fate of the filibuster is to the future of this presidency and the country, it doesn’t matter what Biden believes. And the same goes for most members of the Senate.
That’s because on this question, Biden doesn’t have to be persuaded, and not only because it isn’t ultimately up to him. The arguments in favor of eliminating the filibuster are almost absurdly overwhelming, but they haven’t managed to change many minds in the Senate.
Instead, what liberals need to do — and this applies not just to the filibuster but to everything they want to accomplish — is change the conditions in which Biden and members of Congress operate.
You get change not by persuading politicians to do the right thing for its own sake, but by altering the political landscape in such a way that the path you want them to take winds up being the only logical choice for them.
That’s why one shouldn’t get too worked up about Biden’s thoughts on the filibuster, as exasperating as they might be. He did say he wants to return to rules requiring senators to "stand there and talk and hold the floor,” whereas right now a single member of the minority needs only to send an email declaring their intention to filibuster.
But he also said that if it were eliminated, “You’re going to throw the entire Congress into chaos and nothing will get done.” Which is utterly preposterous; if that were the case, then nothing would get done in any state legislature in America, none of which have a filibuster that functions the way the Senate’s does, though a few allow some form of a talking filibuster. (Red-state Republicans should answer this question: Would you favor your state legislature adopting the kind of filibuster you now enjoy?)
As much as Biden pines for the chumminess of the Senate he joined in 1973, his thoughts about the filibuster are something of a muddle. Which suggests that in the right situation he’d be willing to see it go — and that’s what characterizes much of Biden’s approach to policy and politics. Like many politicians, he has principles but his positions are subject to change.
Why has Biden moved to the left on a variety of issues, from climate change to the minimum wage? It wasn’t due to a conversion experience. It was because persuasion, activism and mobilization happened from below, which changed the perspective of the rank-and-file in his party. As someone firmly committed to staying at the center of gravity within his party, Biden moved in response.
In other words, the context in which he operated changed, and so did he.
Even if Biden seems a particularly malleable president, the same is true to at least some degree of every politician. Even committed ideologues such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) adapt to changes in the political environment and react to the incentives they face.
So if you’re eager to see the filibuster gone so voting rights can be secured and other progressive priorities can be put into policy, where should you look? The problem right now is that two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have very publicly refused reforming the filibuster. Other Democrats may agree but don’t want to do so publicly.
Which itself is a clue that those other senators could support filibuster reform if it becomes clear that their own futures depend on it. Unfortunately, Manchin is a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican state whose political brand is built on stymieing liberal legislation, so the more liberals demand filibuster reform the less likely he is to support it.
Sinema is a more complicated case. She represents a swing state trending blue, and right now she believes her future still depends on winning Republican support. If she faced a strong primary challenge where this became an issue, she might change her mind.
But the reality is that the only way Democrats will get filibuster reform — and thereby get action on the rest of their agenda — is to elect enough Democrats to the Senate so that they don’t need Manchin and Sinema’s votes on the question.
It’s a tall order, especially if we’re talking about the next election, a midterm where the president’s party usually loses seats. But this is what a different landscape would look like: Democrats get 52 or 53 votes in the Senate, their voters clamor for filibuster reform to enable policy change beyond once-yearly reconciliation bills, and enough senators can no longer resist pressure from below. That’s what would produce change.
And Biden? He’d go right along with it, no matter what he says now.